Archives For Ann Voskamp

The Apologetic Value of Beauty

Mark Beuving —  February 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Whenever I teach on the relationship between Christianity and art, there are always questions about how evangelistic our art should be. Christians are commanded to communicate the gospel. And art is a means of communication. So shouldn’t we be putting crosses in our paintings and verses in our poetry? Shouldn’t our literary characters be converting and our film characters be preaching?

One factor that often gets overlooked in these discussions is the nature of beauty as God himself formed it. When God created the word, he made it beautiful. Overwhelmingly so. There is beauty at every turn. There is beauty that literally brings us to tears. There is beauty that makes us stop and contemplate. Beauty is everywhere in the world that God made.

But why did God make his world beautiful? For example, why should lilies be beautiful as opposed to merely functional? The answer seems to be that God is a lover of beauty. As many have said throughout the years, beauty needs no justification. We don’t need to explain why the world should be beautiful. Why shouldn’t it be so?

But there is also an apologetic function to the beauty that God made. In other words, beauty is a tool for evangelism, for pointing people to God.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

The artistry in the created world reflects the God who crafted it, and it does so to such a great extent that David can say that it declares and proclaims God. Paul says something similar, and even goes a bit further:

“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19–20)

Paul is saying that everyone knows the truth about God. Sure, they’ll deny him. But deep down, they know God. How do they know this? Because God has shown himself to them in the things that he made. When people look at the beauty and grandeur of the created world, they are actually witnessing revelation about God. So evident is God in the beauty of this world, in fact, that Paul says that everyone who sees the created world has no excuse for their disbelief (sorry agnostics).

Christian LilySo here’s my point. God didn’t print Bible verses on flower petals. The beauty of those petals points to God without an explicit declaration of the plan of salvation. So it is with the art that Christians make. The beauty their art embodies points to God, even if John 3:16 isn’t written on the canvas. Beautiful, creative, well-crafted art is evangelistic—even when there is no verbalized gospel presentation.

This is because beauty inherently points beyond itself. Beauty, says N. T. Wright, “slips through our fingers.” We try to photograph it, to paint it, to record it. And we genuinely cherish and enjoy these beautiful expressions. But even so, the beauty embodied in our art does not fully satisfy our itch. And for Wright, this reveals something about beauty itself:

“The beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied.”

Exquisite—not banal—pleasure that leaves us unsatisfied. As Ann Voskamp says, “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.”

Many Christians choose to talk about the gospel explicitly in their art, and many do this very well. But we sometimes impose upon our artists a Christianese quota that must be fulfilled in every song, film, or painting. And when we do this, we are (inadvertently) demeaning the apologetic value of the beauty that God infused into the most mundane facets of creation. And John Calvin goes so far as to call this sort of undervaluing of God’s diverse work “demeaning” and “reproachful” towards the Holy Spirit.

As I parked my car for our early morning pre-service band rehearsal and pulled my guitar out of the trunk, I realized that I had already been worshiping. No, Chris Tomlin had not been on my car stereo, nor was I listening to sermon podcasts. I hadn’t meant to worship (that sounds lame), but I had my eyes and ears open, and it just happened. Here’s how.

As I began driving to our church building, the sun was just preparing to rise. Everything was partially lit with the blue light that precedes sunrise. I drove West, and my rearview mirror displayed a gradually lightening sky with varying shades of deep blue as the sun reflected off of the Eastern clouds. Looking ahead, the moon was sitting low and shining brightly in the even deeper blue sky, shining through some wispy blue clouds. It was the kind of predawn that almost makes early mornings sound like a good idea.

All this I saw with my eyes, but my ears were busy too. I was listening to “Miasma Sky” by Baths (see the video below), a song I am only just becoming acquainted with, and it was killing me. The instrumentation and arrangement are so beautiful, so reflective. It’s nothing like a worship song, but the few and simple lyrics are about being swallowed up (in a foreboding way) by the grandeur of nature. This, too, was incredibly moving.

As I drove, I felt myself drawn into worship.

Then my former semi-fundy self questioned the validity of this experience. There have been times in my not-so-distant-past when I would have considered it fluffy, mystic, or “emergent” (my past self not understanding any of those terms) to be led to worship by a sunset and a “secular” song. So in the final moments of my drive I asked myself, “Is there a biblical basis for what I’m experiencing right now?” And I answered myself, “Yes, I think so.” (Apparently I have a very active and formal inner dialogue.)

Both aspects of my experience (being led to worship by non-religious sights and sounds) are easily explained both biblically and theologically. Psalm 19 insists that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Romans 1 says that God, from the moment of creation, has been revealing himself through the things he has made.

So I saw beauty, and I saw God. He’s the God of beauty. He’s the God in beauty. Ann Voskamp says it insightfully: “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.” His lights and colors were streaming through the universe on my short drive, and I beheld his manifold grace.

Likewise, I heard beauty, and I heard God. His name wasn’t spoken, but the sounds that he designed and made possible were being pushed into the air from my speakers. Those sounds travelled in waves through the cab of my car, obediently following the laws of physics that God instituted. They struck my eardrums, which resonated accorded to God’s design. And my brain, following God’s impossibly complex instructions, interpreted those fleshy vibrations as beauty.

It goes even beyond that, actually. Those sounds found their way onto my iPod because God ingrained human beings with the ability and inclination to experiment and create. He carefully chose the musical gifts he would give to the musicians in the band Baths. He formed a musical universe that through the creativity of his human beings would eventually yield guitars and drums and a host of beauty creating instruments. And the eventual result was “Miasma Sky” flowing through my speakers in the early dawn, filling my ears as the color filled my eyes, and drawing my heart to the beauty of the Creator.

So I say to my former semi-fundy self: “Yes, I was right to worship.” As the old hymn says:

“This is my Father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass I hear him pass
He speaks to me everywhere.”

Here’s to impromptu worship sessions. May we find them often and everywhere.